Completing a marathon puts ordinary runners in the company of elite athletes—finishing a 26.2-mile run is an impressive accomplishment. But you don't have to be an elite athlete to join the ranks of marathoners around the world. With dedication and training, most runners can complete a marathon—and then have the satisfaction of being able to say, "A marathon" Yeah, I've done that."

So don't shy away from a marathon because it seems too hard, too long, too painful. With the right attitude and a good training regimen, it's just 26.2 miles away.

Getting Psyched

Don't worry about breaking records or beating times—as you've probably heard, all marathon finishers are winners. "You simply want to survive the event," says Bill Comer, MPH, program director for Community Running in Boston.

If you do survive—and you can—you'll have conquered a great athletic challenge. If you decide you like marathons, you can always do it again—and you'll probably do it faster. Comer says most marathoners complete their second event 15 to 20 minutes faster than the first. So focus on finishing the marathon as comfortably as possible—which means following a training program that prepares your body for the task.

Training

Ask ten different coaches and you'll get ten different ideas about the best way to train for your first marathon. However, most training programs do have a few key aspects in common. Generally, programs last anywhere from 15 to 20 weeks and your weekly mileage builds until a few weeks prior to the race, when you begin to taper (reduce your mileage). Most programs include a long run every week.

Kim Liljeblad, MS, director of athletic programs for Community Running, designed a 16-week program for first time marathoners, which includes the following components.

  • Long Run
  • Your body isn't used to running for hours at a time, so you need to get it ready. Liljeblad's program starts with an eight-mile long run in week one, builds to a 22-mile long run in week 13, then tapers back to 13 miles then 10 miles in weeks 14 and 15. In week 16, there is no long run: you're running a race!
  • You don't ever need to run the full 26.2 miles in training, but you should do at least one run of more than 20 miles. "At 20 miles [into the marathon], you're roughly halfway there," Comer says. "The last 6.2 miles is easily as difficult as the first 20." So you should know what it feels like to pass that 20-mile barrier at least once. Don't go too far past 20, don't do it too often (once is enough), and don't do it too close to the race. Most people do long runs on the weekends, when there's more time to train.
  • Easy Runs
  • Two days a week, just go out and run. One of these runs should be about five to seven miles (less right before the race) and one, probably the day after your long run, should be about three miles.
  • Intervals/Tempos/ Fartleks
  • Two days per week (not right before or after the long run), you should try to incorporate some kind of speed work. You can do this by running intervals on a track, doing tempo runs (during the middle of an easy run, pick up the pace to your ten kilometer or five kilometer pace for a stretch of several minutes) or doing fartlek runs (like tempo runs, but you pick up the pace more, for shorter stretches). Don't do the same kind of speed work each time: mix it up from day to day and week to week.
  • Cross Training
  • Running takes a big toll on the body; cross training helps you ease up without sacrificing training time. Try biking, swimming , or low-impact machines at your gym. Estimate that ten minutes of cross training equals one mile, and include this in your weekly mileage counts.
  • Rest
  • You don't want to get burned out, so take off at least one day per week—more if you need it. This helps your muscles recover and leaves you feeling refreshed for your next training session.

Avoiding Injury

  • Rest
  • Most running injuries are overuse injuries; rest is key to staying healthy during marathon training. One day per week off and some cross training will help.
  • Build Slowly
  • Another key for runners who aren't used to doing long distances is to build up slowly. "Be very careful about the amount you increase your distance from week to week," says Cheryl Reed, ATC. Be especially careful about your long runs. Don't run eight miles one week then sixteen the next; rather, increase your distance in small increments.
  • Liljeblad's program involves increasing long runs by no more than a few miles each week—and there isn't an increase in mileage every week. Total weekly mileage never increases by more than five miles from one week to the next. You need to give your body time to adjust to the new distances it's running.
  • Warm Up and Stretch
  • As with any sport, you also need to be careful to warm up and stretch carefully to keep your legs healthy. Reed recommends beginning with a five to ten minute cardiovascular warm-up, then stretching well, focusing on the lower body. Following your run, make sure to cool down and stretch lightly.

Food and Water

To complete a marathon, you need both emotional and physical support. It's great to have a training partner or group to run with, especially for the long runs. You should also get used to running with physical support—ie, water, sports drinks , and foods.

"On race day you'll have access to all sorts of fluids and foods," Comer says. Because your body adapts to training, you don't want to do anything different on race day than you do during your training. So get used to taking in water and fluids with electrolytes, especially during your long training runs. Come race day, make sure you drink early and drink often—running 26.2 miles uses a lot of fluids. Comer warns runners that drinking water alone won't cut it—you need to replace electrolytes to adequately hydrate your cells and stave off dehydration.

Your First Race

Not all marathons are created equal. The first time you attempt 26.2 miles, you don't want to run ten miles straight uphill or contend with sub-freezing temperatures. Choose an "easy" marathon—relatively flat, friendly, and temperate. It won't actually be easy, but you can help yourself by choosing a race that doesn't require running in a parka or climbing 10,000-foot peaks.

Great first-time races include: